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The Media’s Other Crisis in a Trump Age

We need a representative, watchdog press to tell the stories of all Americans with accuracy, depth and empathy.

It’s heartening that liberal publications around the country are now an emboldened vanguard against Donald Trump’s racism and misogyny. But the inequalities that allow hateful attitudes to thrive run deep in these same news outlets — embedded in the lack of byline parity in the country’s most prestigious newspapers, magazines and websites. It’s also been a curious thing, since the election, to hear top-gun editors offer mea culpas about the fact that they’d ignored the concerns of the disenfranchised, white male voters who helped get Trump elected. The historic exclusion of women and minorities from news reporting and coverage — particularly women of color, and particularly from the front page — has never inspired the same laments.

Here are the statistics from an industry that can’t seem to keep up with the country’s demographic change. Cue the eye rolls and diversity-fatigued groans.

Today, nearly 40 percent of Americans are part of a minority group, but only about 13 percent of newspaper employees are minorities, according to data from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). A 2015 Columbia Journalism Review piece by Alex T. Williams, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication who studies media trends, used data from ASNE and several sources to show an alarming lack of opportunity at every stage of an aspiring minority journalist’s trajectory. Journalism graduates of color are far less likely to secure jobs intheir chosen field compared to their white counterparts, for example. Recruiters complain that minority candidates are rare. In fact, most aren’t part of the credentialing pipeline that begins with Ivy League campus newspapers and unpaid internships and ends in an elite newsroom or magazine job. Qualified minority candidates exist outside this narrow track, but they’re just not being hired, according to Williams.

Looking specifically at the lack of women in media, research from the Women’s Media Center shows that men report 65 percent of US political stories in print, and are credited with 62 percent of news content overall — including print, television, internet and wire services. Glaring gender disparities exist in the country’s most widely circulated newspapers according to the center’s 2015 report. Women received just 32 percent of all bylines at The New York Times, 33 percent at USA Today and roughly 40 percent at The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal in2014. Major online news sites fared better, with women’s bylines totaling 42 percent.

Cable television news remains a constellation of male faces — both as far as anchors and guests peddling their influence or sharing expertise. On shows covering foreign policy, for instance, women made up just 22 percent of the guests. Looking at the cable news network coverage of both 2016 conventions combined, the organization GenderAvenger, in partnership with theWomen’s Media Center and Rutgers University, found that women made up only 29 percent of commentators on MSNBC and 37 percent on CNN. The lack of parity ultimately deprived voters of critical perspectives.

Across the media spectrum, we rarely hear the voices of minority women. Black, Latino and Asian women made up under 3 percent of newsroom employees in 2014. On opinion pages and cable news shows, they’re all but invisible. And though they’re more prone to violence than whites, the disappearances, gun deaths, battery, assaults and other traumas of minority women are reported far less frequently.

Mainstream journalism’s more literary counterparts — heavyweights like The Atlantic and The New Yorker — don’t do much better, with some exceptions. A research group called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts studies gender parity at such publications and comes out with “the count” every year — a pesky fly in editors’ ears. Their 2015 count also includes the ethnicity, race and sexuality of writers surveyed. At the aforementioned magazines, women’s bylines hovered at just 30 percent. Not a single female writer self-reported as Hispanic — though nearly 20 percent of the country does in census data, making it the country’s largest ethnic minority.

That large swaths of our population are absent from the newsroom and the published page means we have distorted ideas about who we are as a country. We’ll continue to have them as long as we’re captive to the same self-referential story of those who produce the news. Yet few industry leaders want to hear the yearly drum roll of diversity data. It’s simply easier to champion fair coverage and pay lip service to diversity on TV panels, college campuses, ticketed media events and all the cozy byways of white, male cronyism. Ultimately, the reluctance to diversify — not as a grudging nod to political correctness, but to reflect the great complexity of the American people — has helped undermine the country’s political integrity. This isn’t hyperbole. A more representative media, on the local level, is linked to higher voter turnout in minority communities.

Exclusion also breeds misrepresentation and bias. If whole groups of people are missing from your own news corps, when you do report on them, it won’t be with any credible sense of accuracy or nuance. A long tradition of the gendered or racial coverage of female public figures is one aspect of this. It has allowed for the acid caricaturing of everyone from US presidential candidate Belva Lockwood in the 1880s, mocked for representing “petticoat rule,” to Michelle Obama as an angry Black militant when she first showed up on the national scene. It also enabled the feverish attempts over two decades to puncture Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy with headlines about her hair, headbands, pantsuits, behavior as a deceived wife, rumored ill health, and, most disruptive to the public eye, the sight of her aging body.

In truth, Donald Trump stepped into a public space that had long been curated for his brand of insult and profiteering. His brazen attacks on Carly Fiorina’s face and Clinton’s lack of “stamina” (and unimpressive backside) drew visceral criticism in the press. So did allegations of his groping and violence towards women. But the condemnations were a distressing irony. Themost troubling thing about Trump’s behavior was how recognizable it was to women whose stories, concerns and experiences get little traction on the front page. When the writer Kelly Oxford decided to put out a call on Twitter for stories of assault, she got over a million responses. Women seemed to be tweeting from the heart of trauma itself. It was a reminder that we live in a country where sexual assault is under-reported, overlooked and so deeply assimilated into our culture that a white actor whose past is marred with harassment suits is acelebrated Oscar nominee. And a confessed sexual predator is now our president.

It would be a mistake for the news media to sit on their meager diversity laurels as the profession scrambles to adapt to a surreal state of affairs. It’d be a sad irony to act as though the promises of the civil rights movement or the women’s movement are fulfilled inside the liberal news industry. Let’s not give in to the dark reasoning in vogue now that the country has had “too much” diversity when talking about the demographic transformation that is our present and future. Let’s not now, caught in the nuances of our own prejudice, claim that it’s time for the sort of ideological diversity that includes pro-Trump conservative and rural voices. Do we really think that writers from The Nation and Breitbart should happily fraternize on the same op-ed page? Yet the question is easier to address than hidden, gut beliefs about the limited capacity of certain populations. Remember the Women’s March on Washington? Hundreds of thousands of women of all stripes took to the streets to preserve basic rights. They were wrapped in a blanket of supportive coverage from major media institutions that, judging from their homepages, could scarcely find any female reporters days later to cover the onslaught of breaking news coming from the White House.

Journalists are challenged now by an administration that’s rife with bigotry and an aversion to the truth. The need for inclusion in the media is inherent to that challenge. It’s simply no longer enough, when asked about the numbers, for the top brass to toss out these stock replies: “We’re working on it.” “We need to do better.” Or, in the words of one editor, “Diversity is not an editorial vision.” That last one is a throwback to the ’90s, when university campuses roiled with debates about the American literary canon and race. White conservatives argued that diversity was not an “aesthetic.” Then the canon broke open to include women and writers of color who redefined it, and students understood more fully what their cultural heritage was.

The Trump age might be an invigorating time for mainstream journalism, which performs such acritical service, to stop undermining, objectifying or altogether excluding millions of people. It might, finally, be a time for equity to prevail in the same news organizations that decry the lack of diversity and racialized policies of the new administration. We need a representative, watchdog press corps to tell the stories of all Americans with accuracy, depth and empathy. Fundamental rights are at stake, and to do anything less would be at the country’s peril.

(This article is loosely adapted from a longer piece by the author that appeared in the Ms. blog.)

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